In Kenya, traditional handcrafts meet conservation

In the arid lands of northern Kenya, the environment, wildlife and communities are under constant pressure. The unforgiving landscape is often struck by drought, keeping the pastoralist people on the move in search of water and grass to sustain themselves and their animals. With an unpredictable climate, wildlife and livestock competing for increasingly scarce grazing, and political unrest, poverty is a persistent problem and the communities are desperate for alternative sources of income that don’t put yet more pressure on their environment.

BeadWORKS is a Northern Rangelands Trust social enterprise that creates opportunities for the nomadic women, translating their traditional beading skills into much-needed income. Working with community-owned conservancies, BeadWORKS has helped create self-governed women's groups, now made up of 900 to 1,000 artisans, mainly from the Samburu culture. With support from microcredit, the groups purchase beads taken to meeting points in the conservancies, selling the finished handcrafted products back to the social enterprise and generating money for essentials like food and medicine. This income enables the women not only to survive but also to improve their families’ lives, without resorting to environmentally damaging activities such as charcoal production or overburdening their fragile grasslands with more sheep and goats. BeadWORKS’ handcrafted products are now marketed internationally.

Siki Lekango, a Samburu woman who was one of the first to benefit from the BeadWORKS program, is 32 and has five children. Before the program started, she was a struggling housewife and livestock herder. Since she became involved, she has received training on improving her family's health and has been able to afford a variety of food to improve their diet. She is now able to purchase clothing and basic medications and has sent her children to school. The empowerment of Siki and her fellow artisans means they have been able to establish small beadwork businesses, enabling their communities to benefit financially from their shared commitment to conservation. (Erin Moroney)

Photography by Erin Moroney